June 28th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Alex has an uncanny ability to find things that grab my emotions. Most recently, this poem, about which I can’t say anything other than that I love it:

Dearest, note how these two are alike:
This harpsichord pavane by Purcell
And the racer’s twelve-speed bike.

The machinery of grace is always simple.
This chrome trapezoid, one wheel connected
To another of concentric gears,
Which Ptolemy dreamt of and Schwinn perfected,
Is gone. The cyclist, not the cycle, steers.
And in the playing, Purcell’s chords are played away.

So this talk, or touch if I were there,
Should work its effortless gadgetry of love,
Like Dante’s heaven, and melt into the air.

If it doesn’t, of course, I’ve fallen. So much is chance,
So much agility, desire, and feverish care,
As bicyclists and harpsichordists prove

Who only by moving can balance,
Only by balancing move.

Michael Donaghy

Nevada, Imogen Binnie (book review)

June 25th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Nevada is a novel that’s psychological in a delightfully straightforward way. No need to reconstruct a character’s psyche from meaningful silences and Freudian cliches. Just swoop in with first-person brain-dumps, stream of consciousness that has been tidied up and wrangled into coherent paragraphs.

This does require fairly introspective characters, but we are in a world where oblivious stoicism would be bafflingly strange. Maria, our protagonist, is self-aware to a fault. She’s a web-nerdy, book-nerdy transwoman, a transplant to New York from nowhereville. Working a deadening bookstore job, not quite able to leave a girlfriend she doesn’t love, twitching for something to shake up her bad-but-bearable life. The secondary characters — the girlfriend, the buddy, the ingenue — are drawn slightly less convincingly than Maria, but still highly self-aware.

Reading Nevada feels like reading Livejournal, and I mean that in an entirely positive way. It’s somebody showing you their head in the most straightforward way possible, within a lightweight road-trip framework that’s only really there to keep the self-analysis trudging along.

Other reviews: one, two, three. Author’s website

How to make a Parisian intellectual stop talking

June 22nd, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

I’m reading Jon Ronson’s latest book, a tour of the twitter-fuelled renaissance in public shamings by a self-righteous mob.

Along the way there are, as you’d expect from Ronson, some wonderfully bizarre historical excursions. One looks at Gustave le Bon, grandfather of the study of “crowd psychology”. Le Bon was a wannabe intellectul in late 19th-century France who, after his previous works were deemed too racist and sexist by the Parisian elite (!), finally made his name with a diatribe about the madness of crowds. Then success got to his head…

The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind was, on publication, a runaway success. It was translated into twenty-six languages and gave Le Bon what he’d always wanted – a place at the heart of Parisian society, a place he immediately abused in a weird way. He hosted a series of lunches – Les Dejeuners de Gustave Le Bon – for politicians and prominent society people. He’d sit at the head of the table with a bell by his side. If one of his guests said something he disagreed with he’d pick up the bell and ring it relentlessly until the person stopped talking.

There’s something horrifyingly believable about this. You’ve finally made your way into the elite, and the immortals are begging to join you for dinner. What a power trip to be lord and master of the entire assembly, free to silence anyone who displeases you.

[there’s more here, in the unlikely event of anyone wanting to delve into the sordid history]

The Talented Mr. Ripley, Snail Smuggler

June 21st, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

…or if not Mr. Ripley himself, at least his creator.

Patricia Highsmith, creator of fictional con-man The Talented Mr. Ripley, preferred animals to people. In particular she loved snails.

This caused her problems when she moved to France. Aside from the coals to Newcastle aspect, snail trafficking was illegal. This is what dragged the crime author into sins worthy of her characters:

When she later moved to France, Highsmith had to get around the prohibition against bringing live snails into the country. So she smuggled them in, making multiple trips across the border with six to ten of the creatures hidden under each breast

[from Mason Currey, Daily Rituals]

Camelot’s sneakiness

June 20th, 2015 § 2 comments § permalink

State-promoted gambling is a grim idea at the best of times. But the UK national lottery is scraping the barrel of dishonest promotion.

They’ve just announced some changes. Take a look at that page and see if you can work out what’s going on.

The important bit is in the smaller print, under “Other Changes”:

More numbers to choose from

You will now be able to choose 6 numbers from a total of 59 rather than 49.

Yep, that’s their way of saying “we’ve just dramatically reduced your chances of picking the winning numbers“. Each ticket now has a 1 in 45 million chance at the jackpot, rather than the oh-so-reasonable 1 in 14 million chance beforehand.

They’ve tried to muddy the waters by adding a free ticket prize tier, so they can offer “a better chance of winning a prize“.

All in all, it just makes lotto look like an even more underhanded way to con people out of their money.

June 17th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

In the early 80s, some 35% of Computer Science students in the US were women. Today, that figure is under 20%.

This graph, from NPR’s Planet Money, shows the turning point when women, when gender equality in computer science programmes stopped improving and took a nosedive.

Until the mid-80s, female students had been forming an ever-increasing percentage of CS classes, as in other disciplines. For a while, CS was less male-dominated than medicine or the hard sciences.

Then computers entered the home, and around it grew a male-dominated geek culture, along with an attitude that computers were toys for boys:

In the 1990s, researcher Jane Margolis interviewed hundreds of computer science students at Carnegie Mellon University, which had one of the top programs in the country. She found that families were much more likely to buy computers for boys than for girls — even when their girls were really interested in computers.

Strange Coin Denominations

June 15th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Belgium has been getting attention for its snub to France, in the form of a €2.5 coin commemorating the battle of Waterloo.

Belgium 2.5 Euro Coin

It’s a brilliantly snarky piece of coinage. But there are plenty of other odd denomination coins floating around. Portugal already has several €2.50 pieces, though they stick to fairly harmless topics like football.

Then there’s Jersey. The island had previously layered its own oddness on top of the already baroque British currency system, leading to coins worth one thirteenth of a shilling.

Then came decimalisation — the introduction of some form of sanity into the British currency. Out went shillings, but Jersey managed to keep a little strangeness. The Queen’s silver wedding anniversary fell in 1972, giving Jersey an excuse to mint a commemorative coin. A commemorative £2.50 coin. Then, obviously fearing things were still too straightforward, they stuck a crab on the back. Go Jersey!

A final shout-out, though, goes to Argentina, for its utterly baffling 36 centavo note:


Some entirely unsurprising tech-world sexism

June 4th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

A while back, The Toast published a list of sexist comments aimed inflcited on women working in technology. What I find really sad is how utterly unsurprising this is. If anything, I would have expected it to be even worse:

“How did you learn to do all this?!” The ancient Spider-Goddess Llorothaag came to me in a harrowing blood-soaked vision. In exchange for perpetual servitude as her handmaiden, she imparted knowledge of IP subnetting.

“It’s not ‘P.C.’ to say this, but…” Thank you for this helpful preface alerting me to the fact that I can spend the next thirty seconds fantasizing about Star Trek without missing anything important.

“It’s got to be a girlfriend-proof system.” I picture an unruly mob of murderous girlfriends descending upon your Brooklyn apartment, seeking to sate their dark desire for living flesh. They scream and gibber as they prepare to devour all that lies within. You block the door with your home theater system. Thank god: it is girlfriend-proof.

“No, when I complain about ‘geek girls,’ I don’t mean you. You’re a real geek.” All attend! The Arbiter is speaking. In his wisdom, he can tell who is a real geek and who is fake, and especially who is a bitch.

“But—you’re way too nice to be a lesbian!” If the other lesbians that you’ve met have seemed like they were being assholes to you, I might have a theory as to why.

Hot Pod

May 14th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Quick plug for Nick Quah’s Hot Pod, an excellent newsletter on podcasts. It has an acknowledged bias towards emotionally-driven, story-based non-fiction podcasts — the archipelago that has formed around This American Life, Radiolab and the like. But even though that’s not really my thing, I’ve found a number of interesting podcasts through it.

Two Medieval Monks Invent Bestiaries

May 4th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

I hope by now we all accept that Mallory Ortberg is the funniest person on the internet. Or at the very least, the funniest writer whose schtick involves heavy doses of art history.

Latest case in point: Two Medieval Monks Invent Bestiaries:

MONK #1: do birds have meetings
MONK #2: absolutely
they have a Meeting Hat and everything
MONK #1: what do they have meetings about
MONK #2: mostly who gets to wear the meeting hat

The Doors of Perception

May 3rd, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

On this day in 1953, Aldous Huxley opened the Doors of Perception. By taking mescaline he loosened the perceptual filters that separated him from the world around him, an experience he recorded on one of the most precise and inspiring descriptions of the hallucinogenic experience:

I took my pill at eleven. An hour and a half later, I was sitting in my study, looking intently at a small glass vase. The vase contained only three flowers….At breakfast that morning I had been struck by the lively dissonance of its colors. But that was no longer the point. I was not looking now at an unusual flower arrangement. I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation-the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.

Huxley was one of the most intellectual and serious of the mid-century psychonauts. He combined the erudite sensibility of the Bloomsbury Set with a long interest in comparative religion and the nature of mysticism.

Ken Kesey saw acid as a tool to build the counterculture. Hunter S Thompson treated it as fuel for the determined hedonist. But Huxley is a child of the Enlightenment, drawn to reason even in the search for creativity and spirituality:

We must learn how to handle words effectively; but at the same time we must preserve and, if necessary, intensify our ability to look at the world directly and not through that half opaque medium of concepts, which distorts every given fact into the all too familiar likeness of some generic label or explanatory abstraction.

Literary or scientific, liberal or specialist, all our education is predominantly verbal and therefore fails to accomplish what it is supposed to do. Instead of transforming children into fully developed adults, it turns out students of the natural sciences who are completely unaware of Nature as the primary fact of experience, it inflicts upon the world students of the humanities who know nothing of humanity, their own or anyone else’s.


How many philosophers, how many theologians, how many professional educators have had the curiosity to open this Door in the Wall? The answer, for all practical purposes, is, None.

Training spies in Switzerland

April 28th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

The Aargauer Zeitung reports on foreign spies being trained in Switzerland.

Wavecom advertises its products in the USA as a “COMINT solution” for military intelligence services, telecoms authorities and other government agencies…

I do not learn where the customers come from. Wavecom has, though, put a list of its branches on the internet. Besides countries such as the USA, Germany and France, the company also advertises its business in totalitarian states like Russia, China and Vietnam.

Piranesi, and de Quincey’s architectural pipe-dreams

April 26th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Do you dream of architecture?

Thomas de Quincey did, although he blamed it on dope. The original English Opium Eater, de Quincey found his drug-induced dreams were of elaborate buildings:

In the early stage of my malady the splendours of my dreams were indeed chiefly architectural; and I beheld such pomp of cities and palaces as was never yet beheld by the waking eye unless in the clouds.

de Quincey then makes an extraordinary leap, linking his fantasies to the only artwork that adequately described them. Extraordinary, because he hadn’t even seen the pictures in question:

Mr. Coleridge, who was standing by, described to me a set of plates by [Piranesi], called his Dreams [actually, Carceri d’Invenzione, “Imaginary Prisons“] and which record the scenery of his own visions during the delirium of a fever

The sensation which de Quincey imagined in Piranesi was one of “endless growth and self-reproduction”, buildings growing to giddy heights, full of immense machinery and with a menacing air of entrapment.

In describing Piranesi, de Quincey was bang on the money. The Imaginary Prisons are something like a gothic-industrial Escher avant la lettre.

The visions are, as de Quincey suggests, something from an intense dreamscape. Not benign, but not quite nighmarish. There’s even a faint echo of this architectural reverie in the work of Coleridge, de Quincey’s counterpart in drugs as in art appreciation. Kubla Khan, the most famous product of his opium-induced dreams, operates mostly in a mode of pastoral mysticism. But even here there are occasional irruptions of architecture — the pleasure-dome, the walls and towers enclosing its twice five miles of gardens.

What’s more, Coleridge makes explicit something implied by Piranesi and de Quincey. These buildings have not been, could not be, built by humans. Only nature and gods operate on these rules of unstoppable, incomprehensible self-replication. To build the pleasure-dome, Coleridge’s dreamer must transcend humanity, become a god who inspires in others the dread which de Quincey found in Piranesi:

I would build that dome in air, 
That sunny dome! Those caves of ice! 
And all who heard should see them there, 
And all should cry, Beware! Beware! 
His flashing eyes! His floating hair! 
Weave a circle round him thrice, 
And close your eyes with holy dread, 
For he on honey-dew hath fed, 
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Coleridge, de Quincey, Piranesi: all are approaching some kind of architectural analog to the Uncanny Valley. Buildings in themselves are not frightening, nor is nature. But buildings behaving as nature — that is a source of ecstatic, hallucinatory horror.

Piranesi’s work all but transposes Kafka into architectural fantasy. “Imaginary Prisons” are by their nature part Metamorphosis, part Castle. They turn civilisation into cancer — rudderless, irrational, merciless and self-perpetuating. And, as with Kafka, reality echoes fantasy well enough to give it extra propulsion.

Piranesi brought into three dimensions — an animation by Gregoire Dupond.

Aldous Huxley managed to pin down some of that beautiful, bureaucratic horror, in terms that could almost come from a back-to-nature critique of industrial civilisation:

The most disquietingly obvious fact about all these dungeons is the perfect pointlessness which reigns throughout. Their architecture is colossal and magnificent…. on the floor stand great machines incapable of doing anything in particular, and from the arches overhead hang ropes that carry nothing except a sickening suggestion of torture. Some of the Prisons are lighted only by narrow windows. Others are half open to the sky, with hints of yet other vaults and walls in the distance. But even where the enclosure is more or less complete, Piranesi always contrives to give the impression that this colossal pointlessness goes on indefinitely, and is co-extensive with the universe.

Piranesi is now somewhat less striking now than he must have been two hundred years ago. He was working one hundred years before Kafka, two hundred before Escher, developing a style that somehow anticipates not just the artistic but also the economic currents that would come generations after his death. And yet his prisons seem as though they could appear in my dreams, just as easily in the dreams that once touched de Quincey.

Maid in London

April 19th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Maid in London is a blog by a cleaner in a London hotel, about work conditions and her efforts to form a union. It’s excellent, if depressing, reading.

A recent study by a major UK union found that out of 100 housekeepers they surveyed, 84 said they used painkillers every day before coming to work.

Nipping downstairs to the locker room, I realise why so much of the linen is marked or lacking altogether. There’s one guy on the laundry chute. One guy dealing with what a former Linen Porter told me is about four tons of laundry hurtling down a single metal chute from five floors into a massive pile every day. He wears a dust mask.

There used to be two porters on the job, but now there’s just one. The guy struggling with it all is from Romania. His eyes are spritely behind his white mask. He must be about 21. We smile and say hi to each other.

Unwillingly footloose entrepreneurs

April 18th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Via Daniel Davies, a side-effect of the UK housing crisis I hadn’t thought of: it’s screwing small business startups.

Business loans in the UK have, apparently, tended to be secured by re-mortgaging the founders house. That kluge has worked moderately well — entrepreneurs have typically been white men in the forties, often with professional experience. These are people who, in the past, have been likely to have bought their own house and largely paid down the mortgage.

Not any more. Even the professional classes can no longer afford their own homes, at least in London and the South-East. So there is no equity to secure a business loan. So businesses which require capital just don’t get started…

And if you have a generation of businesspeople who don’t own houses, and who therefore can’t be fit into the historic template of British small business lending, then you’ve got the impetus for a total reinvention of small business finance in the UK. The banks which realise this first will do best, and if the incumbents don’t then entrants will. Arguments of the form “this problem has to be made worse to heighten the contradictions so that real change will come” always sound a bit Leninist, and have a pretty bad track record as either predictions or policy advice. But in this case, all of the contradictions have already been heightened, as the result of other policy choices made which had very little to do with industrial policy at all. Nobody has really given much serious priority to the need to re-engineer business finance in the UK, but we’ve now reached a point at which the old way of doing things is no longer possible.

Reclaiming Pretty

April 12th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

My friend Sasha spent the last month guest-blogging at the F-word. It’s all worth reading (although inconveniently not all linked in one place). I particularly like her defence of using the word pretty:

When I describe someone or something as pretty – particularly when it’s not someone young and female, which is mostly the case – it feels in some way like a fuck you, a reclamation and repurposing of a word that has dogged me and my gender my whole life….
It feels like some small attempt to redress the balance, to reinvent ‘pretty’ as a universally applicable term of approbation, to bring feminisation into aspiration instead of disparagement. I like its slightly offhand, flippant tone, which completely fails to disguise how heartfelt it really is….
I would also rather live in a world where feminisation and aestheticism wasn’t used to reduce or control or belittle, and reclaiming ‘pretty’ is my (inadequate and imperfect) attempt to build that world.

Kompromat as business card

April 10th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Profile of Russian hacker group “Humpty Dumpty”. It starts out looking like an idealistic hacktivist network, the “Anonymous International”.

Shaltai’s stated mission is “to change the world for the better, helping to bring greater freedom and social awareness.”

One of the group’s members even quoted the 2009 film Watchmen, saying, “We don’t do this thing because it’s permitted. We do it because we have to. We do it because we’re compelled. Once a man has seen society’s black underbelly, he can never turn his back on it.”

But in the end, hacktivism turns out to be a publicity-grabbing loss-leader to drum up paid hacking work:

Shaltai Boltai, if Lewis is to be believed, is only a “side project.” The group’s main work is getting hired to dig up information about private and public individuals. The whole company consists of a dozen people.

We’re hired by private individuals and groups within the state, and we never work with anyone tied to the drug trade. But we maintain that we’re an independent team. It’s just that it’s often impossible to tell who our clients are. Sometimes we hand over information to intermediaries, without ever knowing the client.

Do modernist kids dream of bureaucratic fairies?

April 9th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Once upon a time, fairy tales were unspeakably brutal. The Brothers Grimm often take the flak for this, but undeservedly. They didn’t create the aura of homicide and senseless injustice, merely absorbed it from the existing oral traditions. Other European folklore collectors got much the same vibe, as did those from further afield. For much of human history, the stories we told to kids were downright nasty.

Today’s children’s literature is, relatively speaking, all sweetness and light. So what changed?

Perhaps it’s about changing attitudes to childhood. Start off with a Romantic idea of the innocence and grace of children. This one was already well underway in the early eighteenth century, and is in the background of some early criticism of Grimms Tales as corrupting. This strand of ideology turns into the Victorian desire to shelter children from the evils of the wider world — a rare chunk of ideology from that time which has only grown stronger in the intervening years.

Or you can take the approach that popular fiction is psychology writ large. Stories, like other forms of play, are about making sense of the world, and particularly learning to deal with its dangers. They may not directly depict the experience of their audience, but some emotional or thematic parallel exists.

The most direct, extreme case is in the games played by children in concentration camps. These might involve imitating guards, or learning deception:

One game of their own devising was modeled after the camp’s daily roll call and was called klepsi-klepsi, a common term for stealing. One playmate was blindfolded; then one of the others would step forward and hit him hard on the face; and then, with blindfold removed, the one who had been hit had to guess, from facial expressions or other evidence, who had hit him. To survive at Auschwitz, one had to be an expert at bluffing — for example, about stealing bread or about knowing of someone’s escape or resistance plans. Klepsi-klepsi may have been practice for that skill.

Grimms’ tales make sense in a world of high infant mortality, frequent violence and untamed nature. With childhood becoming safer, the classic fairy tales seem increasingly alien.

It’s interesting to look in this light at the dystopian trend in modern children’s books, with the Hunger Games trilogy as standard-bearers. The danger here is state and society. Survival comes less from honour and courage than from building alliances and navigating structures of power. All of which, I’d say, is a pretty decent approximation to the state of the world today.

More on Black Mirror

April 4th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Shortly after discovering Black Mirror, I discovered this discussion of it, on a comedy forum. Here are some of their proposed storylines for the next series:

It turns out that internet trolls are just aliens trying to make first contact.

As a direct consequence of this unfortunate cultural misunderstanding, Earth’s connection to the galactic internet is severely throttled during peak times.

Glitter and Huntley roam freely, sexing children in the open, but getting away with it because they’re passing their penises through the re-animated corpse of Jimmy Saville, using him as a “VPN tunnel” and thus escaping prosecution


Britain is ruled by a giant bubble at Westminster. When everyone rebels it floats up above the country and fires on the masses with its DeathStar-style laser guns.

An independent analysis of LHC data suggests that the Higgs boson committed a string of sexual assaults in the 1970s, and high-ranking officials at CERN were aware of it.

Save the economy! Stay on the dole!

April 4th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Alex Harowell has an interesting post about the economics of unemployment at AFOE.

In a strong economy, career paths tend to stay within a specialism, developing increasing experience and skill, and hence steadily increasing productivity. Or if somebody switches careers, it’s more a case of reculer pour mieux sauter, taking a temporary setback to end up somewhere more productive.

That doesn’t work in a recession. People who lose their jobs in bad circumstances are more willing to accept a new one, even with much worse pay and prospects.

In the long term, this is often a Bad Thing, both for them and the economy. They get onto a different career path, one coming more from desperation than choice, and will find it hard to switch back:

The unemployed are suddenly driven off their optimal productivity path, and are usually under pressure to take any job that comes along, no matter how suboptimal. Until they get back to where they were before the crisis, on their new paths or on their old ones, the economy will forego the difference between their potential and actual production.

The long-term cost of this depends on how desperate the unemployed are to take just any job that comes along. It’s better for the economy if they stay unemployed for a while before returning to a high-productivity career, rather than getting locked long-term into something less productive.

i.e. it all depends how society treats the unemployed. If you cut benefits, treat the unemployed like shit, and hussle them into whatever job is available (UK), you set the country up for long-term under-productivity:

If the unemployed sit it out and look for something better, you would expect a jobless recovery and then a productivity boom – like the US in the 1990s. If the unemployed take the first job-like position that comes along, you would expect a jobs miracle with terrible productivity growth, flat to falling wages, and a long period of foregone GDP growth. Like the UK in the 2010s. And if your labour market institutions are designed to prevent the information destruction in the first place, with a fallback to Keynesian reflation if that doesn’t cut it? Well, that sounds like Germany in the 2010s.

* lets ignore the fact that people may choose lower-paid (i.e. less productive) work for non-monetary reasons. Everything else works out much the same